If you wanted a big house 10 years ago, money was not the only limitation. You also had to find a lot and a custom builder, choose a plan and make endless decisions about materials and colors. Today, as production builders move into the luxury market, the purchase of a big house is seductively easy.
Just tour the models, let your imagination run wild with all the upgrade possibilities, pick a bunch and sign on the dotted line. But what kind of big house are you buying? One that's grandiose or one that's grand? One that will soon be dated or one that 20 years from now you'll love as much as the day you moved in? And how can you tell the difference?
The grandiose house has all the bells and whistles associated with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but the whole is never greater than the sum of its parts. In short, it is a "checklist house" with the requisite marble in the entry foyer, a barrel-vaulted passageway to an enormous dining room and columned or arched openings--and sometimes both--for the living room.
The kitchen, with pricey cabinets and honed marble counters, opens onto a two-story family room. But with windows only at the ground level, the space feels like so much dead air. The 1,200-square-foot master suite is a house within a house, its opulent bathroom reminiscent of ancient Rome. The finishes may be eye-popping, but the grandiose house says "look at me" not "live in me."
The grand house, by contrast, is seamless, understated elegance. No one detail or feature stands out, but each was carefully considered to produce a result that is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
The foyer will not have a hit-you-over-the-head flamboyance. The view from the front door toward the rear will not be a faux stone wall with a glimpse of a small reflecting pool replete with small fountains and naked \o7 putti\f7 . From the front door of the grand house you can see into the heart of the house and the view beyond, which will be landscaped to enhance the interior spaces that open off of it.
The house will not necessarily have a large number of rooms, but each room will be large, with doors and windows and trim appropriately sized to create a pleasing ensemble.
The careful detailing and attention to scale and proportion not only creates a great look, it also creates a great ambience. Where to find such a house and what should be the basis for your idealized picture? Before you look for a builder or tour furnished models, it helps to know what you are looking for.
Whether you want something traditional or wildly contemporary, scale and proportion are eternal architectural verities.
The classics might beckon, but the best place to start gathering ideas, advises Vienna, Va., architect Bill Sutton, is from the large houses built from the turn of the last century to about 1930 in the older suburbs of most American cities, such as Pasadena.
Though some aspects of these "grand old beauties" will seem quaint by current standards--tiny closets, small bathrooms, minuscule powder rooms and minimally sized garages--most aspects of the house will be informative.
You will not be bowled over at the front door with the lavish appointments, but you will immediately feel comfortable in the large entry hall with living spaces to either side.
Space is allocated efficiently, but not at the expense of one area over another. You won't find narrow stairs and narrow hallways that open onto the largest master suite you have ever seen. The bedrooms are large, but the width of the stairs and hallways leading to them are commensurately generous.
Unfortunately for today's home buyers, the traditions of the master craftsmen who built these houses largely disappeared during the nearly 20-year hiatus from home building caused by the Great Depression and World War II. With effort it is possible to build a new house with the same enduring character, though you may find the only way to get the house you want is to hire an architect and build it yourself.
Katherine Salant is a syndicated columnist who writes on newly built homes. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Inman News Features.